Worldwide plantings of biotech crops grew by 32.9 million acres in 2004, a 20 percent increase from 2003, to a total of 200 million acres. This was 5.4 percent of the 3.7 billion acres of cultivable cropland. For the first time, biotech acres planted increased faster in developing countries, 17.8 million acres, than in developed countries, 15.1 million acres.

These estimates come from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). It is a “not-for-profit organization cosponsored by the public and private sectors with an international network of centers designed to contribute to the alleviation of hunger and poverty by facilitating transfer of crop biotechnology applications to developing countries and global knowledge-sharing about biotech crops.” The ISAAA has become the official collector of worldwide estimates of plantings of biotech crops. Additional information can be found in ISAAA Briefs Number 32-2004.

Some of the acreage planted estimates are old news for followers of biotech crops in the United States. Acreage in the U.S. increased from 105.7 million acres in 2003 to 117.6 million acres in 2004, an 11 percent increase. The U.S. accounted for 59 percent of the biotech crops planted worldwide. Canada’s biotech acreage increased to 13.3 million acres in 2004, a 22 percent increase from the 10.9 million acres planted in 2003.

The ISAAA divides the world into two groups: industrial and developing. Developing countries planted 68 million acres, 34 percent of the 200 million acres planted to biotech crops. Not all developing countries are alike.

Four developing countries in the soybean growing belt of South America, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, use production technology the same way it is used in the United States and Canada and sell into the same international markets for soybeans. These four had total biotech acreage of 56.1 million, up 34 percent from 2003, and 82 percent of the biotech acreage in developing countries. These countries were identified in work by University of Minnesota Agricultural Economist Ford Runge as a “sphere of biotech investment and research.” Acreage in the region probably would be higher if biotech crops did not have policy constraints in Brazil.

Professor Runge has also identified both India and China as centers of spheres of biotech crops. According to the ISAAA estimates, China’s acreage of biotech crops increased from 6.9 million acres in 2003 to 9.1 million acres in 2004, a 31.9 percent increase. Most of the current biotech acreage in China is Bt cotton. The biotech crop to watch in China is Bt rice. The ISAAA agrees with other analysts that China will likely approve Bt rice in 2005. This would be a major move for biotech into the most important food crop in Asia.

India had a 400 percent increase in biotech acreage, but from a small base. Acreage increased from 250,000 in 2003 to 1.24 million in 2004. As with China, most of that was Bt cotton. Also, like China, India has done much research on biotech crops and will undoubtedly increase acreage in the years ahead. And, like China, India has a large rural population that continues to depend on agriculture for a major portion of its income.

South Africa is another country that is considered as a center of a sphere of biotech, and it showed a 25 percent increase in biotech acreage in 2004 to 1.2 million acres. Most of that acreage is Bt cotton and Bt corn. Corn is a major food crop and feed crop in South Africa and is often exported. The Philippines also had 250,000 acres of biotech corn; and Honduras had about 100,000 acres of biotech corn.

Biotech crops have also established a small presence within the European Union (EU), with plantings of about 100,000 acres in Germany and 250,000 acres in Spain, where biotech corn has been planted since 1998. The ISAAA also noted that the EU approved for importation two biotech corn events for use in both feed and food and 17 varieties of corn with insect resistance that can be planted in all 25 EU countries.

ISAAA estimates that 8.25 million farmers in 17countries grew biotech crops in 2004, with 90 percent of them being resource-poor farmers in developing countries. This is up from 7 million farmers in 18 countries in 2003.

This year, 2005, will be the tenth year of commercial production of biotech crops. Over the last nine years the ISAAA estimates that 951 million acres have been planted to biotech crops. Somewhere in the world in 2005 the one billionth acre of biotech crops will be planted. That is remarkable growth from the 4.3 million commercial acres planted in 1996.

Substantial changes have occurred over the past nine years in the biotech characteristics of crops. The first biotech crops were herbicide resistant. While those crops are still the majority of biotech crops, insect resistant crops have become more important, particularly in developing countries where controlling insects is more of a challenge than controlling weeds. The other shift that is now underway is the shift to more food grains, first with food corn and, as noted earlier, with rice later this year in China. With these shifts has also come the beginning of the removal of some trade barriers to biotech feed and food crops.

The ISAAA estimates that by 2010 biotech acreage will be up to 375 million, about 10 percent of the cultivable land, in 30 countries with 5 million farmers. With the proven economics of biotech crops in North and South American for large scale agriculture and increasing opportunities in Asia and Africa for use by resource-limited farmers, acreage could grow more rapidly than expected by ISAAA.